For a luncheon souvenir booklet 10 years ago, I wrote this:
“[On March 14, 1996], chicago.tribune.com served up 31,001 HTML pages to a worldwide audience that probably wasn’t too worldwide.
“Actually, for a while in the wee small hours of that morning, the folks in Room 500 were worried that we would serve up zero pages. Here we had this huge promotion box on Page One of the newspaper announcing our arrival (see image at left), a story in the Business section too, and at 4 a.m. you could still point your browser at our brand new address and see . . . nothing.
“Well, that got fixed. Lots of other things have gotten fixed along the way, too.”
I didn’t get around to scheduling an event for today (sorry, gang), but now we’re 20 years on from the launch of the Tribune’s “new address for news,” and keeping track of what’s gotten fixed (the URL?) and what’s been broken (the business model?) makes for a very messy scorecard. Though the traffic, for sure, is somewhat higher: 3.5 to 4 million page views a day.
Still, back then, already our intrepid band of digerati had a few feats under their belts:
- In January of 1995, when I was still features editor and a redesign of the newspaper made it impossible to print concert reviews in the next morning’s editions, we began uploading them to Chicago Online on AOL as soon as they were edited.
- In March ’95, well aware thanks to Tim Landon that the Web would change classified advertising forever, we started publishing a handful of job categories on the Web as Chicago Tribune Career Finder . . . for which advertisers actually paid us. (Not that Tribune Co. CEO Charlie Brumback was too impressed: “I fear our recruitment project consists of newspaper people moving their art and text to the internet,” he wrote to Tribune publisher Jack Fuller. “We are about six months late and whatever we put out there will have to equal or exceed existing services. Our present offering does not compare well at all.”)
- On Oct. 25, 1995, we covered our first breaking news story on the Web, a horrific train/school bus crash in Fox River Grove, and published the URL of the coverage in the afternoon commuter edition.
- Four days after that, we launched our first ongoing home for Web-native content: Digital Coffee, a personal technology site anchored by columnist Jim Coates and edited by Bill Swislow.
- And just six days before this “official” news launch, we started taking entries for the annual “Beat Siskel” Oscars contest via the Web. (Yes, in 1996, the Oscars hadn’t happened yet.)
There would be more on the scorecard: Digital City Arlington Heights (and Chicago and Naperville and Evanston….), Metromix.com, cars.com, CareerBuilder.com, ChicagoSports.com, of course Legacy.com. There was wall-to-wall coverage of the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the only other shop we saw reporting in real time on the Web was CNN. There was a pre-smartphone experiment with mobile, a 2004 launch of Metromix on U.S. Cellular cell phones. There are just too many Web sites to mention and screenshots to post.
And plenty of mistakes to list, too: Politely listening to a sales rep from Google offer us its new search engine for free in 1998 — but listening only, since we had just spent $1 million on proprietary technology. Impolitely declining partnership overtures from interesting startups because, well, we were the Chicago Tribune and well, the resources!
And, not because it was wrong but because it was done without any user research, launching an innovative, but widely and wildly reviled, Version 2 (above). Perhaps users hated it because it replaced the less-than-a-year-old Web convention of “newspaper” verticality with a horizontal, it-all-fits-on-your monitor front page … but more likely, they already were allergic to the idea that someone would give them only one story choice at a time on Page One.
But of course, for me, the dawn of the Web remains about so much more than the product launches and shutdowns, the great ideas and the great follies: It’s about the digerati. Here’s the staff list from launch day, superimposed for me 10 years ago on a Jeff MacNelly image by Stacy Sweat.
I know you guys are out there; thanks for helping to create the future.
P.S. As noted at the top, I didn’t plan a party this year, but if you want to be reminded of the one from 10 years ago, here is a photo gallery and here is a contemporaneous Jim Coates column about it.